New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones was one of the journalists who denounced the New York Times for publishing the views of a conservative U.S. Senator on the use of troops to quell rioting in U.S. cities. Hannah-Jones applauded the disgraceful decision of the Times to apologize for publishing such an opposing viewpoint and denounced those who engage in what she called “even-handedness, both sideism” journalism. Now Hannah-Jones has deleted a tweet advancing an anti-police conspiracy theory. When Hannah-Jones and others objected to the publishing of the views of Cotton, opinion editor James Bennet was rustled out to make a pleading apology. That however was not enough. He was later compelled to resign for publishing a column that advocates an option used previously in history with rioting. Unlike the editor of the Times, however, such theories are not viewed as cause for resignation or “both sideism.” The concern for many of us is that the media is not just losing its touchstone of neutrality but continues to apply vastly different standards for journalists and editors, even at the same newspaper.
Hannah-Jones has been at the forefront of the debate over the protests including her controversial position that the destruction of property “is not violence.” Yet, she has also spoken powerfully about the emotions and anger underlying these protests. In 2020, she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work on The 1619 Project examining the history of slavery. She has promoted herself as “The Beyoncé of Journalism” and “smart and thuggish.”
In her now deleted tweet, Hannah-Jones promoted a thread that discussed how the recent injuries and destruction caused by fireworks was not the fault of protesters but actually part of a police conspiracy. This is occurring at a time when police are trying to quell the use of these fireworks in New York and other cities. These incidents are becoming more and more of a concern for residents both in protests and random attacks. This includes the recent incident involving the victimizing of a homeless man and effort of the police to identify the culprit:
On June 22, police officers from the 73rd precinct responded to a 911 call of a unconscious male inside of 1548 East New York Avenue. When they arrived, they discovered the victim on the lobby floor with multiple gunshot wounds. He was pronounced deceased at Brookdale Hospital. pic.twitter.com/u5w2fCccXw
— Chief Rodney Harrison (@NYPDDetectives) June 24, 2020
As criticism of the use of fireworks have grown so has a conspiracy theory on the Internet is that the fireworks are part of a police plot “to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” The thread promoted the view of a person identified as Robert Jones, Jr. that
“The media is reporting this as though it’s just Black and Brown kids blowing off steam, but I don’t believe that’s the case. My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.”
When confronted on her republishing of this conspiracy theory, Hannah-Jones deleted the tweet and apologized. That was the correct response. However, the incident does not seem to have prompted any reconsideration of the recent move against the Times or its editors. In that incident, they published not a conspiracy theory but a column on a power held by the federal government for decades and used repeatedly in history.
This was just a tweet and we have all made bad calls on occasion with the hair-trigger technology of Twitter. However, the incident highlights the troubling and fluid standard over what is permitted for publication or promotion. I am more concerned with Hannah-Jones’ widely cited views of journalism than this wayward tweet.
Hannah-Jones has been at the forefront in demanding that the media prevent others from offering opposing views. She was one of the first to pile on the editors and demand that the newspaper block such viewpoints. At the time, she suggested that Cotton’s editorial was advancing unconstitutional ideas (it was not) and, while suggesting that the column was factually in error, she never bothered to state what fact was untrue.
“So this adherence to even-handedness, both sideism, the view from nowhere doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in. And what a lot of people said is that, you know, it is fine. We as a news organization must air the opinion of someone like Senator Tom Cotton, but in a news article where we can check the facts, where we can push back, that you don’t just hand over your platform to someone that powerful making assertions that might have been unconstitutional and, most certainly, some of them were not accurate.”
I did not agree with Cotton’s editorial and opposed the use of federal troops. However, Cotton’s column was referring to the constitutional use of troops and was accurate in its references to the historical use of such power. He was simply wrong in my view on the need and the wisdom of using such an option. That is the point of an opinion page. It allows for such views to be debated.
Instead, Hannah-Jones insisted that it was the duty to prevent such views from being read by simply declaring it “misinformation”:
“Senator Cotton certainly has the right to write and say whatever he wants in this country, but we as a news organization should not be running something that is offering misinformation to the public unchecked. Many of us journalists said there should have been a news article where his views were aired but in a way that was factual, because we know we are struggling with Americans getting misinformation and our role as journalists is to give people correct information so they can make decisions.”
This blog has focused on free speech and free press issues for many years. We have defended the rights of many with whom we disagree. Indeed, I would defend the right of Hannah-Jones and Robert Jones Jr. in voicing or promoting these conspiracy theories. Ironically, Hannah-Jones can now count on the toleration for such inflammatory viewpoints.
However, the incident highlights the inherent danger of embracing Hannah-Jones’ attack on what she calls “even-handedness, both sideism” in the media. As I said at the time, the apology of the New York Times and the removal of its opinion editor was an act that would stand unrivaled in journalistic infamy. The problem is that, once you discard the bright-line rules of journalism of offering both sides, we are left with this inconsistent and incoherent standard of one-handedness and one-sideism.